Mothers drive family technology boom

San Jose Mercury NewsMay 19, 2013 

At the place where motherhood meets entrepreneur and play dates collide with iPads, a new market for parent- and kid-friendly technology is exploding.

Family tech – Web services and applications for parents and kids – is a new market driven largely by mothers creating technology to solve problems that have plagued parents for decades, such as how to find a babysitter, choose the right summer camp, and capture the memories of their child’s first year.

Family tech was the focus of a recent all-day event in Mountain View, Calif., the second conference of its kind backed by seed fund and startup accelerator 500 Startups, which is led by Silicon Valley celebrity investor Dave McClure. Several of the hundreds of entrepreneurs gathered at the Microsoft Conference Center said that the busy and buzzy MamaBear Family Tech Conference validates the rising strength of the family tech market.

Like many entrepreneurs there, Brooke Chaffin, 42, left a tech job to pursue a project inspired by her kids. She had accumulated thousands of photos of her 1-year-old twin boys but never moved them off her camera and into new photo albums, which still lay wrapped in plastic and collecting dust. Wracked with guilt, and knowing she was not alone, she set out to create an app that would help organize and share photos and videos.

She pitched the idea to Disney Interactive, where she now runs the women and family division. Last week, her brainchild was released as an app called Story.

For Andrea Barrett, one unexpected struggle of motherhood was her son’s marathon sleeping habits, which often meant she often would be stuck at home for hours.

“We didn’t have a babysitter that we trusted. We ended up staying in a lot,” said Barrett, 35. “Word-of-mouth is the way people want to find a caregiver, but it’s very inefficient.”

In 2011, Barrett launched UrbanSitter, an online service that connects parents with trusted babysitters. No more Friday nights on the couch. The service is in 14 cities and raised $6 million in the fourth quarter last year, she said.

Men join in the market

But it’s not just women in this burgeoning space. Men, too, have recognized the potential of the market, among them the three founders of BabyJunk, an online marketplace to buy and sell baby and maternity goods. After becoming a dad, co-founder Garth Humbert watched barely worn children’s clothes and toys pile up in his garage.

“It’s just something that we needed or could use,” Humbert said.

Women say they have taken the lead in family tech because they know how to design products that mothers want – technology that is simple, helps them juggle their many responsibilities and supports their priorities – namely, their families.

Business leaders say they’ve barely touched the potential for family technology.

Women are “the superusers of technology,” Chaffin said. “Women are the early adopters. When you make something that’s a hit with women, you have a breakthrough.”

Mothers are more likely to have a smartphone than teenagers, and 93 percent of them don’t leave home without it, according to data from the conference. About one-third of mothers own a tablet. Women are online an average of almost three hours a day, and when a woman finds out she is pregnant, her Internet usage skyrockets. More than 70 percent of mothers have a Facebook page, and they check it on average about five times a day.

Funding hard to find

But experts say the family tech industry, and the women leading it, still face hurdles. Babysitting and used onesies just aren’t a sexy sell, which makes it difficult to secure funding.

“Technology has been built by young guys who want to do the next cool thing,” said Chandini Ammineni, co-founder and CEO of ActivityHero, a site that helps parents find classes and camps for their kids. Family tech, she said, is often solving the problems of middle-class families.

While women have made inroads in Silicon Valley, several attendees said they still face sexism in the male-dominated industry. Most investors are men, and many have low expectations for women entrepreneurs.

“Progress happens, albeit slowly,” Chaffin said. “We’re not quite there yet.”

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